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Teen died from eating a spicy chip as part of social media challenge

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts teenager who participated in a spicy tortilla chip challenge on social media died after eating a large amount of chili pepper extract and also suffered from a congenital heart defect, according to autopsy results obtained by The Associated Press.

Harris Wolobah, a 10th grader from Worcester City, died on September 1, 2023, after eating the chip made by Paqui, a Texas-based subsidiary of the Hershey Co.

Paqui I removed the product from store shelves shortly after Harris’ death. The Associated Press sent an email seeking comment to Hershey on Thursday.

A phone number listed for Harris’ family has been disconnected. The Associated Press left messages seeking comment from friends of the family.

Harris died of cardiopulmonary arrest “in connection with a recent ingestion of a food substance with a high concentration of capsaicin,” according to the autopsy from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Capsaicin is the component that gives chili peppers their heat.

The autopsy also revealed that Harris suffered from cardiomegaly, an enlarged heart, and a congenital anomaly described as “myocardial bridging of the left anterior descending coronary artery.”

A myocardial bridge occurs when a segment of a major artery in the heart passes through the heart muscle rather than on its surface, according to Dr. James Udelson, chief of cardiology at Tufts Medical Center.

“It is possible that with significant stimulation of the heart, the muscle beyond the bridge suddenly had abnormal blood flow (“ischemia”) and could have been the cause of a severe arrhythmia,” Udelson told the ‘AP in an email. “There have been reports of acute capsaicin toxicity causing cardiac muscle ischemia.”

High doses of capsaicin can increase the pressure exerted by the heart, putting additional pressure on the artery, noted Dr. Syed Haider, a cardiologist at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

But even though the autopsy results suggest that a heart defect likely made Harris more vulnerable to the negative effects of chili pepper extract, people without underlying risk factors can also suffer serious heart problems from ingesting it. high amounts of capsaicin, Haider said.

Both Udelson and Haider spoke in general terms; neither were involved in Harris’ case.

Harris’ cause of death was determined on Feb. 27 and a death certificate was delivered to the Worcester City Clerk’s Office on March 5, according to Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Safety and Security public authorities in Massachusetts. The state has only released the cause and manner of death. Authorities will not release a full report, which is not considered part of the public record, she said.

The Paqui chip, sold individually for about $10, was wrapped in foil in a coffin-shaped box containing the warning that it was intended for the “vengeful pleasure of intense heat and pain.” The warning stated that the chip was for adult consumption only and should be kept out of the reach of children.

Despite the warning, children had no problem buying the chips, and there were reports across the country of teenagers falling ill after taking part in the chip-eating challenge. Among them were three California high school students taken to the hospital and seven Minnesota students treated by paramedics after participating in the challenge in 2022.

The challenge called for participants to eat the Paqui chip and then see how long they could last without consuming other foods or water. Sales of the chip appeared to be driven largely by people posting videos on social media of themselves or their friends completing the challenge. They showed people, including children, unwrapping the packaging, eating the chips and then reacting to the heat. Some videos showed people retching, coughing and begging for water.

Spicy food challenges have existed for years. From local chili-eating competitions to restaurant walls of fame for those who finish piping hot dishes, people around the world have challenged themselves to eat particularly spicy foods, with some experts highlighting the internal rush of competition and risk taking.

A YouTube series called “Hot Ones” became famous on the Internet several years ago with videos showing celebrities’ reactions to eating spicy wings. Meanwhile, restaurants across the country have offered in-person challenges — from Buffalo Wild Wings’ “Blazin’ Challenge” to Wing King’s “Hell Challenge” in Las Vegas. In both challenges, customers over the age of 18 can attempt to eat a certain amount of wings drizzled with extra hot sauce in a limited time without drinking or eating other foods. Chili pepper eating competitions are also regularly held around the world.

Extremely spicy products created and marketed solely for challenges – and possible internet fame – represent a more recent phenomenon exacerbated by social media.

Harris’ death prompted warnings from Massachusetts officials and doctors, who warned that eating such spicy foods could have unintended consequences. Since the flea fad emerged, poison control centers have warned that the concentrated amount can cause allergic reactions, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat and even heart attacks or strokes.


This story has been edited to conform to AP style: chili, instead of chili.


AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard in Washington and AP Business Writer Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.

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